Bogus Bordeaux 

Wine forgery fascinates food writer Benjamin Wallace.

At a Christie's auction in 1985, bidding began at $10,000 for a full bottle of Chateau Lafite Bordeaux whose purveyor claimed it had once belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Respected auctioneers endorsed his allegation that it had been walled up for safekeeping during the French Revolution and that workmen tearing up a Paris basement had recently discovered it. Its label was engraved with the initials "Th.J." The bottle sold for $156,000. But subsequent suspicions have since turned that wine story into a fish story, as detailed by food-and-wine journalist Benjamin Wallace in The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine. "The idea that the bottles were genuine ... and had survived two hundred years without anyone's knowledge was magical to me," says Wallace, who will be at Orinda Books (276 Village Sq., Orinda) on June 3. "As it turned out, the underworld of wine forgery was utterly compelling in its own right." Wallace embarked on "an excursion into the lives of the ridiculously rich," he says, in order to interview major players in what he calls "a brilliant con on par with Clifford Irving's hoax autobiography of Howard Hughes or the forged Hitler diaries." Striving to discover the actual location of the alleged Paris basement, wrangling with the bottle's purveyor — who refused to communicate by any means except fax — Wallace probed a kind of crime that, while well-established, is evolving rapidly: "The days of the easy wine con, when you could just mix together some relatively mediocre wine, some Port, and a dash of crème de cacao and simulate a priceless 1947 Cheval Blanc, are on their way out. Even the more creative lengths to which some forgers have gone over the years — such as blasting bottles with a shotgun to give them the pitted look of age or spraying them with aerosolized dust — wouldn't be enough to fool an expert nowadays." As for the Jefferson bottle, "all kinds of high-tech sleuthing went into cracking the case, including an ex-FBI 'toolmark' specialist and an underground lab with a cutting-edge device called a germanium detector. As recently as five years ago, a collector looking to have his wine authenticated had to sacrifice a bottle. ... The germanium detector, which dates wine by pinpointing the amount of radioactive cesium in it, is so sensitive that there is no need to open the bottle." Fakers beware. Before starting this book, Wallace was a ten-buck-Chuck kind of guy: "not exactly the kind of customer coveted by wine merchants. In fact, it would probably be an embellishment to even glorify the places where I bought wine as 'merchants.'" These days, "I tend to spend more money per bottle ... though rarely more than twenty dollars." 4 p.m.


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